Erasing Ukraine’s Memories

The Communist Party in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, erected this monument to Joseph Stalin in 2010. Image from a video by FWWS1.

The Communist Party in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, erected this monument to Joseph Stalin in 2010. Image from a video by FWWS1.

From the beginning of its rule, the current government laid the foundation for the concept of its cultural policy by criticizing “Orange nationalism,” but that was clearly not enough to make the construction stable. Consequently, these modern ideologues were forced to pull out one brick after another mostly from the established myths of the past. Now they are clumsily but intensively putting together a cultural Frankenstein from the fragments of Soviet ideology, some idea about the “Russian World,” and a grotesque vision of Ukraine. The impression is that our identity is being targeted, because most of the damage is being done to such cultural domains as the language, history, the commemoration and memorialization policy, education, etc.

The topics of the Holodomor and the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) were used as keys to constructing national identity in the Orange period, so the first changes affected precisely these topics: President Viktor Yanukovych’s public denial, in Brussels, that the 1932-1933 Holodomor was genocide against the Ukrainian people; the stripping of nationalist figures Stepan Bandera [a sometime Nazi collaborator – TOL] and Roman Shukhevych of their Hero of Ukraine titles; the restored practice of pompous military parades on Victory Day; and even the government’s silent assent to a monument to Joseph Stalin in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhya. These are an incomplete list of events that signal cardinal changes in the policy of how Ukrainians are to remember their own history.

As for the Ukrainian language, the “new course” is clear: Russification on the level of individual regions; decisions by local administrations to use Russian; a noticeably smaller place for the state language even in linguistic sectors like education, etc. Sensing this new trend, mass media outlets have greatly reduced their Ukrainian-language production in favor of Russian-language programming on television and the prevalence of Russian or Soviet content (largely propaganda) on Ukrainian TV channels.


All government agencies and institutions that actively dealt with problems of the past in 2006-2010 later experienced major personnel reshuffles and sometimes structural transformations. For example, the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, which, despite all its drawbacks and mistakes, was on its way to becoming a leader in forming the government’s policy in this field, was saved from being shut down only thanks to public pressure. But the government used the old principle “If you want to destroy something, head it!” On 9 December 2010, Yanukovych issued a decree to reorganize the institute from a central executive body into a research institution attached to the Cabinet of Ministers, which significantly reduced its powers. This made it largely irrelevant in the structure of public administration. Experts dubbed the presidential decree “the final stage of eliminating the state policy on national memory in Ukraine.” Moreover, this institution is morally unable to deal with historical memory, because on 19 July 2010, the Cabinet of Ministers appointed Valeriy Soldatenko its director. Until recently Soldatenko was an ideologue of the Communist Party of Ukraine and was directly involved in drafting its new program.

Absurdly, a communist is now running an institute tasked with unmasking the anti-human past actions of communists. The State Archive Service is still headed by another communist, Olha Hinzburh, who infamously said that restoring historical memory “may harm descendants.”


In 2008-2009, the SBU State Archive became actively involved in implementing the policy of historical memory. It began to declassify documents of Soviet security bodies about the Holodomor, Stalinist repressions, the mid-20th century Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, and the UPA. The archive became open to a large extent. An electronic database of documents was set up. Dozens of academic articles, collections, and exhibitions were prepared. However, the archive, which has exceptional historical value, has remained under the control of the Security Service.

The archive’s public activities have been discontinued. Sources are being published extremely selectively. Access to some previously declassified documents of Soviet punitive bodies has been limited. Transferring the historical part of the KGB’s documentary legacy to the state archives is no longer on the agenda. Instead, Yanukovych issued a decree in June 2011 to reorganize the SBU’s Department for Archival Provision into an archival institution attached to the Security Service.

This year, the Verkhovna Rada, or parliament, passed amendments to the law on the national archives that open the possibility of destroying archival documents that have lost their cultural value, have duplicate copies or are irreparably damaged and cannot be restored. This new law also permits limiting access to documents containing “confidential information” for 75 years after the time of their creation. Experts say archival institutions interpret the concept “confidential information” arbitrarily and expand its scope for no good reason. This kind of law on archives will give the government convenient tools to cut off access to Soviet-era sources.

At a press conference about amendments to legislation initiated by the State Archival Service of Ukraine, its chief, Hinzburh, thus replied to an expert who asked her about implementing European standards of transparency: “We have become so open that if it were up to me, I would close half of it.” Shortly before she made this statement, Yanukovych expanded her powers by appointing her a state expert on issues of secrecy. Now Hinzburh is authorized to classify information as a state secret, change its status, and declassify documents.

According to a poll by the Center for the Study of the Liberation Movement, 86.2 percent of researchers in Ukraine have faced difficulties with obtaining access to archival documents in the past two years.


Several school and college textbooks recently found themselves the focus of public attention. One was a Russian-language handbook, Ocherki istorii Ukrainy (An Outline of the History of Ukraine), edited by academician Petro Tolochko and intended for higher education institutions as an alternative to the “Orange model of history.” It allegedly took the authors five years to write, but they were unable to publish it for a lack of funds. The textbook was praised by all “anti-Orange” forces – from Communist Party members to Russian nationalists. For example, the Kommunist newspaper published a review that lauded the text as a “return to the truth” and referred to one of the chapters as “the restoration of the historical truth about the Great Patriotic War.”

In contrast, Ukrainian scholar Olena Rusyna, who analyzed only the “Lithuanian” period in the volume, accused the authors of compiling data from the textbook on the history of the Ukrainian SSR, pursuing a political agenda, and being biased. Historian Kyrylo Halushko pointed out that the texts in the book were written in different genres, were not internally coherent, and lacked an overall concept. He also outlined lame attempts to argue for the existence of an Old-Rus’ community and Ukrainian-Russian unity throughout Ukraine’s history. Historians said tongue-in-cheek that, using this approach, Tolochko could be expected to produce A History of Little Russia within a year or two.

The content of textbooks was also modified to fit the new political situation and the historical preferences of the current government. For example, several items – the Battle of Kruty, the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, and the UPA’s struggle against the Nazis – were removed from Viktor Mysan’s textbook for the fifth form. Unbeknownst to the author, mentions of the Orange Revolution and the 2004 and 2010 elections were also crossed out. In general, he was asked to make changes that would form “a non-aggressive image of Russia.”

Since September, students in the 11th form study the history of Ukraine according to new textbooks. Initially, three authors won the competition organized by the Education Ministry – Olena Pometun, Oleksiy Strukevych, and Stanislav Kulchytsky. However, government financing was later suddenly withdrawn for Kulchytsky’s book under the pretext of “insufficient funds.” In the new textbook “Great Patriotic War” again “replaced” World War II, while the OUN and the UPA were barely mentioned. The term “Orange Revolution” also disappeared – Pometun says no such revolution ever took place.


Dmytro Tabachnyk

In October 2010, Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk announced that a working group would be put together to prepare a joint Ukrainian-Russian textbook for history teachers following an agreement he had made with his Russian counterpart. Aleksandr Chubarian, director of the Institute of World History at the Russian Academy of Sciences and one of the leaders of the group, said the sides had already agreed not to involve “extremist” scholars in the process. (Evidently, this means anyone whose views are not in line with the pro-Russian position.)

Recently, the mass media reported that the Education Ministry intended to integrate two school subjects – Ukrainian history and world history – into one, thus dissolving topics about Ukraine in the general presentation of history. On 20 February, Tabachnyk denied this as “an absolute lie” but said a project to this effect was being developed by “a group of scholars from the National Academy of Pedagogical Sciences.” It will be submitted for evaluation to the ministry upon completion. He added that officials were pondering a possible reduction of academic hours for the Ukrainian language, literature, and history in forms five through 11, allegedly in order to allocate more time to foreign languages (including Russian) and computer science. Evidently, the ministry has the goal of eliminating the national foundation of Ukrainian education.


The legislative initiatives of the Verkhovna Rada in the field of memory policy in the past two years are hard to call anything but inadequate, incompetent, and sometimes intentionally provocative. One of the scandalous events in 2011 was the celebration of 9 May (Victory Day) in Lviv, which degenerated into a fight. Prior to that, on the initiative of the communists and Yanukovych’s Party of Regions the Ukrainian parliament passed a law under which red flags were to be used next to Ukrainian national flags during the 9 May celebrations. Ukrainian society was outraged. Experts said that the law “On the Victory Flag” was a direct borrowing from Russian legislation. The city councils in Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv banned flags with Soviet symbols on 9 May. Instead, “veterans” were brought from eastern regions to Lviv in order to “unfurl the red banner.” All of this led, for the first time since independence, to direct physical violence.

The new government has been persistently acting through parliament to introduce in Ukraine the old Stalinist models of war memories that are now being restored in Russia. Tellingly, the Verkhovna Rada passed a resolution to mark the 65th anniversary of the Nuremberg Tribunals on the initiative of the Party of Regions, the communists, and the Volodymyr Lytvyn Bloc. Following the Russian Duma, the Ukrainian parliament denounced comparisons between Stalin-ruled USSR and the Third Reich. Ukrainian lawmakers said it was immoral to blame the USSR for starting World War II in the same way as Nazi Germany. Western countries were to be presented as the instigators of the worldwide conflict; the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had to be rehabilitated and Stalin’s image whitewashed. The resolution also denounced attempts to “justify collaborationists.”

At the same time, in addition to stigmatizing “foreign heroes” the Party of Regions is trying to rehabilitate and popularize “our own.” In October, the Verkhovna Rada approved a resolution sponsored by Oleksandr Yefremov, leader of the Party of Regions faction, on state-level celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Young Guard underground youth organization, which was created on 28 September 1942. In this case, the problem is not just childhood nostalgia and the Soviet mentality of the Party of Regions. The list of planned events, apart from traditional points like fixing up museums and monuments, includes the publication of Alexander Fadeyev’s novel The Young Guard, despite the fact that its historical underpinnings were recognized as falsified long ago. The author was guided by Stalin in writing the text. This typical specimen of socialist realism began to be reprinted in Russia only under Vladimir Putin (in order to instill patriotism in the young generation), and now Ukraine is going to follow suit.

The childhood nostalgia of the Ukrainian establishment for the totalitarian past led to a series of reincarnations in the Ukrainian media space. Such Stalin- and Brezhnev-era hits have been shown as Bolshaya zemlia (The Ural Front), Timur i yego komanda (Timur and His Team), Vstrecha na Elbe (A Meeting on the Elbe), Pyatyi okean (The Fifth Ocean),Bolshaya zhyzn (A Great Life), Dva boytsa (Two Fighters), Admiral Nakhimov, etc. In addition, Ukrainian viewers get to watch talk shows about the war that involve spin doctors and so-called government “historians.”


A confrontation of identities fueled by the government is also being promoted in the practice of memorializing. For example, in what was an open defiance of the Orange government’s policy to rehabilitate nationalist heroes, eastern Ukraine set up monuments to “victims of the UPA,” i.e., civilians and NKVD officers from eastern regions who died when the Soviets were subjugating western Ukraine.

On 14 September 2007, the first such monument was erected in the central square in Simferopol. It was named “A Shot in the Back” and dedicated to “the victims among the Soviet people who died at the hands of Nazi collaborators,” meaning the OUN and the UPA. Such monuments have been springing up in villages across the northeastern Sumy Region. A monument to Soviet victims of the UPA was restored in May 2010 in Luhansk. This artifact has a patently provocative and confrontational nature. The anti-UPA theme was taken a step further in Donetsk, where a monument to Red Army General Nikolai Vatutin “killed by the Banderites” was set up.

Attempts to restore the cult of Stalin in eastern regions of Ukraine was an even more radical antithesis to Ukrainian historical memory. On 5 May 2010, a bust of Stalin was installed in the territory of the Communist Party committee in Zaporizhzhya with the authorities doing nothing to stop it. On 28 December 2010, someone sawed off his head, and the pedestal was blown up on New Year’s Eve. Later, during a prosecutor’s investigation, the sculpture was presented as “a decoration of the building” rather than a monument. The authorities carried out arrests in the local branch of the Tryzub (Trident) organization and sentenced nine people to two to thee years in prison in December 2011. On 7 November 2011, the communists restored the scandalous bust despite protests from the local community.


Public monitoring suggests a premeditated policy aimed at limiting the use of Ukrainian in education. According to an analysis by the Space of Freedom and reformist groups, the number of first-year school students in Russian-language schools grew in southern and eastern regions. In Luhansk Region, the percentage of first-year students in Ukrainian-language classes dropped by 4.7 percent. This is one of the consequences of processes that started in 2010: the closure of Ukrainian-language schools and widespread inclusion of Ukrainian-language schools in the category of bilingual institutions (with Russian-language classes). In other words, the gradual transition of school education to Ukrainian-language instruction, which had continued for 20 years, was essentially halted in many regions. In addition to censoring the way the history of Ukraine is taught, literary works about the Holodomor, including Vasyl Barka’s Zhovtyi kniaz (The Yellow Prince), were removed from the curriculum and external testing.


The domination of Russian is noticeably increasing in the public sphere in Ukraine. According to Space of Freedom, the print run of Ukrainian-language books and brochures dropped from 27,527 items per 1,000 citizens in 2009 to 15,094 items in October 2011. At the same time, the total print run of newspapers published in Ukrainian fell from 32 percent of the market in 2010 to 30 percent in 2011, while that of Russian-language newspapers grew from 63 percent to 66 percent. Russian also dominates on television. According to Space of Freedom, which monitored the most-watched TV channels, Ukrainian accounted for a mere 22.2 percent, bilingual programming for 31 percent, and Russian-language broadcasts for 46.8 percent. The same is true for radio: six top radio stations spoke Ukrainian 28.1 percent of the time, while the share of Ukrainian-language songs was a miserable 4.6 percent. A law was passed in late 2011 that scrapped quotas for Ukrainian music for radio and television broadcasters and reduced the quota for Ukrainian audiovisual products from 50 percent to 25 percent.


According to various estimates, Ukrainian television has increased entertainment content by two to three times and proportionately reduced intellectual programs in the past two years. The main prime-time content is low-quality Russian TV series. A parallel reality is being modeled, and this trend, which has been tried and tested by Russian TV channels, is picking up steam in Ukraine. According to TeleKrytyka and the Institute of Mass Information, a growing number of topics are given superficial treatment or ignored altogether by television, such as attacks on business and freedom of expression, the activities of the government and power structures, the declining standard of living, protests and court injunctions banning them, the falling popularity ratings of the powers-that-be, and the persecution of the opposition. In particular, in November, the 1st National Channel led the way, with 166 items on sociopolitical topics that looked as if they had been ordered (or censored). The 1st National Channel, the New Channel, and Inter are the channels to most frequently ignore important topics with 468, 467, and 466 cases respectively in November 2011. Inter and ICTV had the first place in refusing to report on the curtailment of freedom of expression by ignoring 27 such episodes each. Most TV channels have offered unbalanced coverage of trial proceedings against opposition leaders and the activities of opposition parties. One of the most recent examples was when the biggest television broadcasters ignored the demarche of Afghan war veterans who turned their backs to the president when he came to lay flowers on the anniversary day marking the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

This article was originally published in The Ukrainian Week.


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